Cooke renounces sin for battle with Saints

A momentary lapse of discipline, when he was sent off for the first time, almost cost the Hull player his place in Saturday's Challenge Cup semi-final against St Helens. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online

Hull's stand-off or loose forward showed a woeful sense of timing when he was sent off for the one and only time in his career two weeks before the date with St Helens on Saturday.

Needled in a tackle, he head-butted Huddersfield's Brad Drew. "I don't know why I reacted that way, because I've had a lot worse things done to me. I was just stupid and my first thought was, 'What have I done to the team?' We could have lost that game because of me," Cooke said. "It was only later I thought about the semi-final."

Before that, he had to face the interrogation of his four-year-old daughter, Ellie. "She wanted to know why I'd gone off early for my shower. Her mum told her the ref had said I was tired."

Fortunately for Cooke, the League's disciplinary committee decided that, with his exemplary record - he has only even been sent to the sin bin once - a one-match ban would suffice.

That leaves him in the clear to try to guide towards a thrilling finale what has been an outstanding season for him as an individual. Always a skilful play-maker, Cooke has discovered a new consistency this year; if there were statistics kept for try-assists, then it is a fair bet that he would be top in Super League.

The only real disappointment has been his continued exclusion from the Great Britain squad, something he intends to ask Brian Noble about - in the most polite way - at the end of the season. "I'd just like to know what I've got to do apart from what I'm doing," Cooke said.

His domestic form made it all the more surprising in mid-season that Hull seemed prepared to countenance him going elsewhere when his contract expires in October. "The chairman gave me permission to speak to other clubs. There was more money elsewhere, but, with being at the club so long, I was happy to stay. I've been here when we've almost been relegated, but the team can really achieve something over the next three years."

That is an impressive display of loyalty from someone who grew up on the other side of Hull supporting Hull Kingston Rovers and was in the crowd at Blackpool when they won the Northern Rail Cup.

"I was born red-and-white in east Hull. Both clubs offered me a contract, but Rovers had me fixed up with a job and I didn't want that, because I was doing my PE A level."

Having cast his lot in with "the enemy", Cooke acquired some early big-game experience that is sure to resonate with him on Saturday, when he was called up for the infamous semi-final against Leeds in 2000, also at Huddersfield. "I was only 18 and it was my first game under Shaun McRae. I was in because Richard Horne was injured, but it just went right past me. Before I knew what was happening, it was over."

Cooke was even unaware of the furore after the game, when Hull fans invaded the pitch and pulled down the goalposts - an event which still lives in the memory for some to fear for their behaviour this weekend. "We need them to behave themselves, but the club has done a good job sorting out that sort of thing. I never knew anything had happened. I was just in the dressing-room, distraught because we'd lost."

Hull start as underdogs again this time, but have the advantage of having beaten Saints once this season in the league in May. Saints have such an array of attacking talent, spearheaded by the remarkable skills of Jamie Lyon, that they deserve to be favourites. "He does a lot of clever things with the ball, but Kirk Yeaman has had a good season against him. We really need him out there on Saturday," Cooke said.

Yeaman's side-strain makes him a doubtful starter at Huddersfield's Galpharm Stadium, but, even if he could keep Lyon quiet, Saints can strike from so many different directions. "You get on top of Jamie Lyon, they can get you through Paul Sculthorpe, or Keiron Cunningham. They will probably make more chances than us, but the good thing about us this season is that we tend to take ours," Cooke said.

The track record of the Hull coach, John Kear, as a Cup giant-killer is a confidence booster; his Sheffield Eagles side's final victory over Wigan in 1998 counts as one of its biggest upsets. "The players know that the coach can win the Cup and he transfers that belief to them. He's been there and done it. When he says he's got the same feeling, you've got to agree with the gaffer."

Challenge Cup

Semi-finals (at Galpharm Stadium, Huddersfield)

Saturday: Hull v St Helens (3.15)

Sunday: Leeds v Toulouse (1.45)